Crew members on a German flagged Greenpeace vessel have been leading protests against a waterborne nuclear power plant – dubbed a potential ‘floating Chernobyl’ – which was towed to the Russian Arctic from the port of St Petersburg in April this year.
The environmental group’s vessel Beluga II shadowed the 21,500gt floating power station Akademik Lomonosov as tugs towed it to Murmansk, where it will take on nuclear fuel and undergo tests before being taken through the Northern Sea Route to begin operations off the port of Pevek in the far eastern region of Chukotka next year.
Akademik Lomonosov is equipped with two 35MW nuclear reactors and is planned as the first in a series of seven floating power plants designed to supply electricity to remote regions. Owned by Russia’s state-run nuclear energy company Rosatom, the vessel has taken more than a decade to build, at a reported cost of anything between US$232m and US$740m.
As well as housing two reactors, Akademik Lomonsov is equipped with two steam-turbine plants and facilities for transmitting power to onshore structures, as well as storage space for spent fuel and radioactive waste.
Baltic States and environmental groups have voiced concerns over the programme – warning that it presents ‘a shockingly obvious threat to a fragile environment which is already under enormous pressure from climate change’. They called for an international study into the environmental impact to be carried out before the reactors are loaded with fuel and tested.
‘There is a lot to be concerned about in the case of the Lomonosov itself,’ said Greenpeace nuclear expert Jan Haverkamp. ‘It has been built without independent regulatory oversight using a hole in the law. The safety systems onboard are comparable to what they have on ice-breakers, but they’re not as strong as what we have on land in nuclear power stations.’
Mr Haverkamp said the risks of the project have not been properly assessed. ‘Contrary to claims regarding safety, the flat-bottomed hull and the floating nuclear power plant’s lack of self-propulsion make it particularly vulnerable to tsunamis and cyclones,’ he pointed out. ‘They’re going to be pretty near the coast and if, say, a cable breaks when they are anchored and they go into the rocks, then that will complicate things – at a minimum.’
Greenpeace's Beluga II
Despite the concerns, Rosatom has denied there are safety risks and has said that its new vessel will be one of the world’s safest nuclear facilities. The company says the floating power plants can generate enough power for a town of up to 200,000 people and will help the environment by replacing coal-fired power stations and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
‘Floating nuclear power plants would enable electricity and heat supply to the most remote regions, boosting growth and sustainable development,’ said Vitaly Trutnev, the director of the Rosatom subsidiary that runs the Lomonosov. ‘Building upon three hundreds of reactor-years of safe operation of units powering ice-breakers, the vessel features the most cutting-edge safety and security systems and is designed with the greatest margin of safety that exceeds all possible threats.’
Greenpeace strongly disputes Rosatom’s safety assurances, however. And having spent a long period tailing and protesting the vessel’s launch, the environmental group is concerned that Russia is in talks with more than a dozen countries – including China, Algeria and Indonesia – on the possibility of establishing similar plants in other parts of the world. ‘My hope is that the international community takes note of what’s happening in Russia and that discussions can take place about what these installations mean going into the future,’ Mr Haverkamp concluded.
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